At the beginning of WWII, the highest rank in the British army was held by… Emperor Hirohito

Sam Dickson
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The question of broken friendships is perhaps easier to answer when talking politics. State and imperial interests sometimes intertwine so much as to decisively oppose those who were once firmly on the same side. Years before the outbreak of WWII, Great Britain, and Japan formed exactly such a couple.

At the turn of the 20th century, UK and Japan used to be great empires on the opposing parts of the globe. Somewhere in the middle laid Russia, an underdeveloped imperial power eager to expand. Its decision to enter China disturbed UK and Japan, both worried about the outcome of the growing Russian influence in the region.

Thus in 1902, the Anglo-Japanese alliance came into being. The treaty officially ended the period of British ‘splendid isolation’, a foreign policy of minimal involvement in European affairs.

The alliance’s provisions for mutual defense drove Japan to enter the First World War on the British side. But even though the partnership was viewed positively in both countries, some reservations remained.

The racial question was probably the biggest obstacle of all. The Japanese believed that Britain was frightened by a so-called Yellow Peril, a colonialist and racist notion that the Western empires used to spread against the Asian peoples, afraid that they somehow pose a threat to the Western civilization. This belief was reinforced when in 1919 Japan requested to add the Racial Equality Proposal to the Treaty of Versailles. UK declined to support the proposal, siding with the USA.

The following period saw growing competition between Japan and USA for influence in the Pacific. The Washington Naval Agreement of 1922 finally put an end to the Anglo-Japanese alliance. It equaled the number of capital ships between the USA and Great Britain but forced Japan to accept the inferior position. Furthermore, pressured by Canada and Australia, Britain decided to side with the USA in case a rivalry with Japan opens up.

Japanese Crown Prince Hirohito visiting the British PM Lloyd George in 1921. Source

Japanese Crown Prince Hirohito visiting the British PM Lloyd George in 1921. Source

Japan didn’t take this lightly. The choice the Brits made was seen as another manifestation of Western racism. The following decade saw immense growth of anti-Western xenophobia in Japan. Aware of the fact that the termination of alliance with Japan might have the effect of pushing it towards Germany or Russia, Britain decided to pursue a gallant and ultimately meaningless policy of forced friendship.

Thus in 1928, two years after the start of his reign, Japanese 27-years-old Emperor Hirohito was made a Knight of the Garter, the third most prestigious order in the UK. Two years later, on 27 June 1930, The London Gazette printed a short article informing the public that Emperor Hirohito was honored the rank of a field marshal, the highest rank in the British Army. This placed young Hirohito among the total of 140 men to ever hold this title since King George II created it in 1736.

Ten years later, it placed Britain in a difficult position. Nice words and gestures failed to prevent the Japanese from signing the Tripartite Treaty with the Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. After the outbreak of the Pacific War, the UK silently moved to strip Hirohito of his knighthood and rank, which the ruthless Japanese dictator must have really taken to heart.

Emperor Hirohito wearing his uniform during the war. Source

Emperor Hirohito wearing his wartime uniform. Source

But this sort of toxic friendship tends to last. In 1971, during an official visit to the UK, Hirohito – never trialed for war crimes and now considered a modernizer of Japan – was restored to his position as a Knight of the Garter. Hirohito died in 1989, but the British diplomatic embarrassment remained as a testimony to what really makes friends and enemies – deeds, not starched honors.